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Archive for the ‘Idioms from the 15th Century’ Category

Beat About The Bush

Posted by Admin on August 2, 2011

When you hear someone say, “Don’t beat around the bush” they want the other person to cut to the chase and say exactly what he means to say.  This usually happens when at least one person involved in the conversation would rather avoid talking about a difficult or embarrassing subject rather than address it directly.

Avoiding the awkward play on words between the phrase and former Presidents George H. W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush — and there were plenty such references in the media over the decades — Idiomation found the phrase used as part of a news headline in the March 28, 1940 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.  The article spoke about the Cromwell incident in Canada and the Surits affair in Paris, and how diplomats appear to sometimes be too forward and direct with their comments, running the risk of offending those with whom they are speaking.

They Didn’t Beat About The Bush

On November 13, 1905 the Boston Evening Transcript published a news story entitled, “More Southern Revolt Against Disfranchisement” dealing with Georgia which has stayed out of the disfranchisement movement while maintaining “white supremacy.”  The article reported on comments made by Hoke Smith, former secretary of the interior in the second Cleveland administration.

Mr. Smith has the candor of his convictions.  He says he is “in favor of passing a State law to disfranchise the Negro.”  He does not beat about the bush; nor is he affected by the consideration that the Constitution of the United States stands in the way of his project with its prohibition of the denial and abridgment of the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  Perhaps he thinks that the Constitution does not interest the Georgians.

In Chapter 19 of Mark Twain‘s book, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” published in 1889,  this comment is made by Hank Morgan, a 19th century resident of Hartford, CT who, after being rendered unconscious by a blow to the head, wakes up to find himself in medieval England.  He undertakes an adventure with a girl named Sandy and as they travel, he says at one point:

“There’s no use in beating about the bush and trying to get around it that way, Sandy, it’s SO, just as I say. I KNOW it’s so. And, moreover, when you come right down to the bedrock, knight-errantry is WORSE than pork; for whatever happens, the pork’s left, and so somebody’s benefited anyway; but when the market breaks, in a knight-errantry whirl, and every knight in the pool passes in his checks, what have you got for assets? Just a rubbish-pile of battered corpses and a barrel or two of busted hardware. Can you call THOSE assets? Give me pork, every time.  Am I right?”

In Chapter 7 of Charles Dicken‘s book, “The Old Curiosity Shop” published in 1840, this comment is made to Dick Swiveller about a young lady by the name of Nell Trent.

“The girl has strong affections, and brought up as she has been, may, at her age, be easily influenced and persuaded. If I take her in hand, I will be bound by a very little coaxing and threatening to bend her to my will.  Not to beat about the bush (for the advantages of the scheme would take a week to tell) what’s to prevent your marrying her?”

The expression has its origins in the hunting days of medieval times.  Noblemen would routinely employ young men to do the dangerous work of flushing animals out of the undergrowth so the nobleman could make his kill.  The best way of accomplishing this was for the young men to go into the bushes with a wooden board and stick to make noise.  The noise would hopefully frighten the animal out of the bushes and in the direction of the waiting nobleman.

Of course, this wasn’t always the best option as sometimes animals such as wild boar would become dangerous and charge in the direction of the noise.  This made young men reluctant to enter areas of dense undergrowth in case they happened to disturb a wild boar.  To circumvent this danger while still appearing to the noblemen to be doing their jobs, the young men would sometimes literally beat around the bush.  The problem with this was that while they were basically doing the job they were to do, they were avoiding the main point of the activity altogether.

This activity and the phrase are attested to in the works of  George Gascoigne (1535 – 1577) published in a poem from 1572 that reads in part:

brother Trsjiiti eke, that gemme of gentle deedes.
To thinke bowe he abused was, alas my heart it bleedes:
He bet about the bushe, whiles other caught the birds …

Generydes: A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas”  a medieval poem published in 1440 has this to say about the practice of beating the bushes in order to flush out birds while also alluding to things less literal:

Euer wayteng whanne the lavender shuld bryng
That she promysed att hir departeng.
Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take,
And wheder that I be on of thoo or noo,
I me reporte onto the letterys blake
And reasons wish it may not be forsake
He that entendith villany of shame
it is no synne to quyte hym with the same.

That the expression is found in a poem from 1440 indicates that the phrase was a common phrase used by everyday people and one can guess that the phrase dates back at least one generation to approximately the 1410s.

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Make Ends Meet

Posted by Admin on July 19, 2011

When you can make both ends meet, it means that you have enough money coming into your household to pay for the expenses being made by your household.  The opposite of this is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In the Times-Herald Record newspaper of Middletown, New York, a Letter to the Editor written by James F. Leiner of New Windsor was published on July 13, 2010.   His letter addressed two featured news articles in the newspaper on July 10, 2010 about dealing with celebrity basketball player, LeBron James.  The letter stated in part:

There was no other noteworthy news to report?  How about mentioning the shame of paying a guy $96 million to play a game while people in Orange County are struggling to pay their taxes and make ends meet? We face the largest tax increase in the history of our country on Jan. 1, 2011, and that fact fails to make a mention anywhere in your missal.

In Jack London‘s book, “Burning Daylight” published in 1910, the author shares this intriguing exchange between two men dealing with pay-roll.

Two weeks later, with the pay-roll before them, it was:–

“Matthewson, who’s this bookkeeper, Rogers? Your nephew? I thought so. He’s pulling down eighty-five a month.

After — this let him draw thirty-five. The forty can ride with me at interest.”

“Impossible!” Matthewson cried. “He can’t make ends meet on his salary as it is, and he has a wife and two kids–“

Daylight was upon him with a mighty oath.

In 1824, Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850) dedicated his book “Bureaucracy” to Comtesse Seraphina San Severino with the respectful homage of sincere and deep admiration.”  In Chapter IV entitled, “Three-Quarter Length Portraits Of Certain Government Officials” the following is found:

Once a month he took Zelie to the theatre, with tickets bestowed by du Bruel or Bixiou; for Bixiou was capable of anything, even of doing a kindness. Monsieur and Madame Minard paid their visits in person on New-Year’s day.  Those who saw them often asked how it was that a woman could keep her husband in good clothes, wear a Leghorn bonnet with flowers, embroidered muslin dresses, silk mantles, prunella boots, handsome fichus, a Chinese parasol, and drive home in a hackney-coach, and yet be virtuous; while Madame Colleville and other “ladies” of her kind could scarcely make ends meet, though they had double Madame Minard’s means.

In 1784,naval surgeon and novelist Tobias Smollett wrote in his book “The Adventures of Roderick Random” thusly:

In the course of our conversation, which was interlarded with scraps of Latin, we understood that this facetious person was a schoolmaster, whose income being small, he was fain to keep a glass of good liquor for the entertainment of passengers by which he made shift to make the two ends of the year meet. “I am this day,” said he, “the happiest old fellow in his majesty’s dominions. My wife, rest her soul, is in heaven. My daughter is to be married next week; but the two chief pleasures of my life are these (pointing to the bottle and a large edition of Horace that lay on the table). I am old, ’tis true–what then? the more reason I should enjoy the small share of life that remains, as my friend Flaccus advises: ‘Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi finem dii dederint. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.'”

Thomas Fuller’s book, “The History of the Worthies of England” published in 1661 provides this example of the expression:

Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses.

When all is said and done, however, the English phrase is a translation of the French saying “joindre les deux bouts” which became popular at the onset of the Renaissance era from 1450 through to 1600.  It is during this era that ruff collars — high standing pleated collars made of starched linen or lace — also known as millstone collars, came into vogue and were especially favoured in France. 

The more affluent the individual, the larger the ruff collar.  However, those who wore such collars had to preserve them when dining.  If the collars were too large for the wearer to reach around and tie both ends of a large serviette around the neck, this had to be done by servants.  The original expression was that the wearer of the ruff collar “avait du mal à joindre les deux bouts” … “had trouble making both ends [of the serviette] meet.”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier reference to this phrase prior to the Renaissance era.

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Mad As A March Hare

Posted by Admin on July 12, 2011

If someone mentions that you’re as mad as a March hare, what they mean is that you’re out of your mind and you’re not thinking straight.  In other words, your behaviour is bizarre and completely unlike your usual demeanour.

The expression goes back to the belief that when breeding season hits in Europe — which just happens to begin during the month of March — hares behave erratically.  The behaviour continues well past March, however during the winter months, hares are docile and so when they seem to be agitated and excited — and sometimes violent — it only appears to be out of character for these animals.  It’s not … not really.

On March 7, 2010 the Telegraph newspaper in the UK reported on the FA Cup quarter final match between Reading and Aston Villa at the Madejski Stadium.  The first paragraph read:

Martin O’Neill went as mad as a March hare at the Madejski Stadium but finally laid to rest one of football’s rarer hoodoos at the 13th attempt. Since arriving at Aston Villa in 2006, the manager had failed to win a game in March and, after Shane Long gave Reading a two-goal half-time advantage, O’Neill delivered a broadside.

On March 1, 1925 the New York Times ran a news story on William Wrigley who began his career as a soap salesman and was known to spend millions on advertising.  The reason for the story had everything to do with the chewing gum that sold for a penny but that generated net profits of over 8 million USD in 1924. The article began with this enticing tidbit of information:

To business men and bankers, Wrigley may have seemed mad as a March hare. That was the panic year. Money was at a premium.  Businesses were wondering how they could escape their advertising contracts.

In Chapter VII also known as “Pigs and Pepper” of Lewis Carroll‘s book “Alice In Wonderland” published in 1865, the following exchange happens between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.

“By-the-bye, what became of the baby?” said the Cat. “I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”

“It turned into a pig,” Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural way.

“I thought it would,” said the Cat, and vanished again.

Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and after a minute or two she walked on in the direction in which the March Hare was said to live. “I’ve seen hatters before,” she said to herself; “the March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad–at least not so mad as it was in March.” As she said this, she looked up, and there was the Cat again, sitting on a branch of a tree.

W. C. Hazlitt published his book “Remains: Early Popular Poetry of England” in 1864.  It contained a poem from 1500 that included this line:

Thanne they begyn to swere and to stare, And be as braynles as a Marshe hare.

The expression mad as a March Hare, however, is found in countless books and documents from the 16th century.  In fact, John Heywood included the phrase in his book “A dialogue Conteinyng The Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue” published in 1546.  So in less than two generations, the phrase had come into its own.  Part of this is due to the fact that in 1529, Sir Thomas More used the phrase in his book “The Supplycacyon of Soulys” when he wrote about beggars and their begging ways:

As mad not as a march hare, but as a madde dogge.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier version of the expression mad as a March hare however it’s very likely that it was used in previous decades as it is used with great ease of language in the 1500s.

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All Cats Are Gray In The Dark

Posted by Admin on July 6, 2011

When in the dark, appearances are meaningless, since everything is hard to see or is unseen. It also means that all persons are undistinguished until they have made a name for themselves.

Back in 1953, writing as Andrew North, Andre Norton (1912 – 2005) — whose real name was Alice Mary Norton — wrote “All  Cats Are Gray.”  The book appeared to be a basic, straight-forward science fiction story with heroes riding about  in a derelict spaceship with a menacing space alien in the mix and a little love and good fortune thrown into the mix.  But it was different in that it was the heroine and not the hero who was very much the protagonist.

On January 13, 1896 the New York Times ran an editorial with a hodge podge of smaller articles, one of which addressed the concept that all cats are gray in the dark.  The tidbit relating to the phrase read in part:

Without pretending to know just what objection the Colonial Dames have to Ben Franklin, we are inclined to ascribe their hostility to his assertion that “all cats are gray in the dark.”  The aphorism — like most of those on which the old Philistine’s fame is based — has no foundation whatsoever in fact.  Black cats, for instance, are not gray in the dark, but blacker than ever, even to the point of disappearing entirely.  Not only is the expression false from the standpoint of observation and natural history, but it was not original with Franklin. He stole it in France and then passed it off for his own.  Now he’s getting punished for the crime.

In Miguel de Cervantes‘ book, “Don Quixote” a version of the phrase “all cats are grey in the dark” is found in Part ii, Book iii, Chapter xxxiii.

And if your highness does not like to give me the government you promised, God made me without it, and maybe you’re not giving it to me will be all the better for my conscience, for fool as I am I know the proverb ‘to her hurt the ant got wings,’ and it may be that Sancho the squire will get to heaven sooner than Sancho the governor. ‘They make as good bread here as in France,’ and ‘by night all cats are grey,’ and ‘a hard case enough his, who hasn’t broken his fast at two in the afternoon,’ and ‘there’s no stomach a hand’s breadth bigger than another,’ and the same can he filled ‘with straw or hay,’ as the saying is, and ‘the little birds of the field have God for their purveyor and caterer,’ and ‘four yards of Cuenca frieze keep one warmer than four of Segovia broad-cloth,’ and ‘when we quit this world and are put underground the prince travels by as narrow a path as the journeyman,’ and ‘the Pope’s body does not take up more feet of earth than the sacristan’s,’ for all that the one is higher than the other; for when we go to our graves we all pack ourselves up and make ourselves small, or rather they pack us up and make us small in spite of us, and then — good night to us.

The phrase appeared as “when all candles be out, all cats be gray” in John Heywood‘s “Book Of Proverbs” published in 1547 that version is essentially the same as the more modern version.  And, of course, the John Heywood version was pre-dated by that of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) as it appears in his book of proverbs and adages, and is considered by Erasmus to be a Gallic proverb rather than a French proverb.

However, the French of the day did say, “at night, all cats are gray” and Yiddish speakers are known to say, “you can throw a cat wherever you want, it always falls on its feet.”  Still the expression was well-entrenched in a number of languages and historically speaking, I can only reach as far back as the generation before Erasmus’ book published in 1500.

Special thanks to Stephen Kruger for providing additional information on this entry.  His input is greatly appreciated.

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Where There’s Muck There’s Brass

Posted by Admin on February 7, 2011

The truth of the matter is that a person can make a lot of money from work that most people refuse to do because they think it’s beneath them, dirty and unpleasant.  So when someone says “where there’s muck there’s brass” you can be certain that he or she is talking about the upside of a job to which others only see downsides.  The saying is sometimes known as “where there’s muck there’s money.”

John Ray published his book “A Collection of English Proverbs” in 1678 and included this similar proverb among the proverbs:

Muck and money go together.

That being said, the Dictionary of European Proverbs by Emmanuel Strauss identifies the date for this English proverb “Where there’s muck there’s money” to 1476.

The word muck dates back to the 13th century and is from the Germanic muk — also written as meuk — meaning “soft” which comes from the Old Norse words myki and mykr, meaning “cow dung.”   These trace back to the Latin word mūcus meaning … well you know what that means. 

So it is a well-established fact that muck has referred to the less desirable natural functions of humans and animals for centuries.

The word brass is from the Old English word “bræs” that refers to an alloy of copper and tin (now bronze) and that is an alloy of two parts copper and one part zine in modern times. Although it’s a mystery word with no known cognates beyond English, it seems to be related to the Old Frisian word “bres” meaning copper and the old Middle Low German word “bras” meaning metal. 

The word brass came to mean copper coins collectively in 1599 — and money in general in 1601 — and was a popular expression especially in the north of England.

The phrase “where there’s much there’s brass” came into its own around this time and helped spread the popularity of the word “brass” as slang for money.  The brass/money association came about because of the association between the colour of gold coins and the value of brass as a scrap metal at the time. 

It has remained a recognized slang term for money and in 1984 when the one pound coin was introduced during the Margaret Thatcher administration in the UK, that particular coin became know as the Brass Maggie.

On a completely different note, the Isle of Muck is a picturesque island just off the coast of Scotland that boasts a population of 34 people.

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Adam’s Apple

Posted by Admin on December 10, 2010

The “Adam’s apple” is the lump on the forepart of the throat that is especially visible in men. Most people assume that the term “Adam’s apple” comes directly from Genesis in the Old Testament but the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t.

Yes, contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not identify the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge as being an apple.  The fruit is simply called the “fruit from the Tree of Knowledge” with no specification as to which kind of fruit it happens to be.

So how did the popular misconception come about?  It was Flemish painter Hugo Van Der Goes who first implied that an apple was the forbidden fruit.  In Van Der Goes‘ painting of 1468 entitled “The Fall of Man” he expressed his personal feelings on the tragedy of the drama of the Fall and Redemption.

During Roman times, the pomegranate was a particularly popular fruit. Pliny the Elder, the Roman encyclopedist, termed the phrase for the pomegranate tree as being “malum punicum” — the Carthaginian apple.  To this end, it’s easy to see why Van Der Goes would choose to paint apples and not pomegranates in his painting depicting the event leading up to Adam and Eve being thrown out of Paradise.

However, the reference to the larynx being an apple originated sometime earlier in the Middle Ages.  Pietro d’Argellata, wrote a detailed description of his examination of the body of Pope Alexander V, who died suddenly at Bologna on May 4, 1410. His notes on the procedure — which is now customary in the Coroner’s office — provided this as part of his description:

I ordered the attendants first to cut the abdomen from the pomegranate to the OS pectinis.

It was understood by all medical personnel at the time that the “pomegranate” when speaking in medical terms was the larynx.

The myth during Medieval times was that while in the Garden of Eden, the forbidden fruit Adam ate became lodged in his throat, causing him to choke.   In this respect, the pomegranate was associated with the “lump” in Adam‘s throat. 

The fact of the matter is that the Latin term “pomum Adami” means “male bump” and when coupled with the myth, the Latin term and the myth lead to a mistranslation of “Adam’s apple” when referring to the larynx.

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Smart Alec

Posted by Admin on August 12, 2010

In 1873, J.H. Beadle wrote in his book The Undeveloped West:

“I had the pleasure of seeing at least a score of SMART ALECKS  relieved of their surplus cash.”

It would appear that after the American Civil war, smart alecks were not very well liked.  But even before during that war, it would appear that the phrase was already well known.  In Carson, Nevada, the local newspaper, The Carson Appeal, published on October 17, 1865 spoke of Nevada having joined the Union:

“Halloa, old SMART ALECK  — how is the complimentary vote for Ashley?”

The Ashley to whom the newspaper referred was Delos Rodeyn Ashley (1828 – 1873) who was elected as a Republican to  the United States Representative from Nevada for the 39th and 40th Congresses from 1865 to 1869.

However, we owe the phrase “smart alec” to the exploits of  New York City’s celebrated pimp, thief, and confidence man, Alec Hoag and his capers of the 1840s.  Hoag, along with his wife Melinda and an accomplice known as “French Jack”, operated a  standard fraud practised by many con artists known as the “panel game.”  This game proved to be a very effective method for prostitutes and their pimps to relieve customers of their money and other valuables. 

The adjective smart as it’s used in this phrase — meaning impudent — dates back to the 15th century, and doesn’t appear that often outside of this expression although once in a while you do hear someone say, “Don’t get smart with me!”

It is said that the police hung the nickname of  “smart Alec” on Alex Hoag because he proved to be a very resourceful thief who outsmarted most everyone — including the police — for the duration he, his wife and their accomplice played the “panel game.”

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Platonic Relationship

Posted by Admin on August 11, 2010

Plato’s ideal of a strong, pure, chaste, spiritual non-sexual love — as opposed to the heavy-breathing very physical sort of love spoken of by Socrates — was known in Latin as “amor Platonicus.” 

Florentine scholar, Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499), one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance and a reviver of Neoplatonism, re-introduced the term and concept of “platonic love” in his book,  De vita libri tres or The Book of Life written in 1489. 

Eventually the ideal of “platonic love” turned up in the English language around 1630 and was popularized in 1636 with the publication of Sir William Davenant’s book, Platonic Lovers.

Needless to say, a number of people have claimed there is nothing but a “platonic relationship” between them and their secret paramours for decades.   They are, of course, almost always stretching the truth.

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Jack Of All Trades

Posted by Admin on August 3, 2010

The phrase “Jack of all trade, master of none” has been around for quite some time and still finds its way into conversations even today.   It’s an interesting phrase without a doubt that hails from the 18th Century.

Port Folio was a Philadelphia literary and political magazine, published from 1801 to 1812 by Joseph Dennie and Asbury Dickens.  In Port Folio 1.38, one of the journalists wrote:

… a Jack of all trades is good at none.

But like other idioms at Idiomation, the first reference found isn’t always the first published reference for an idiom. 

In 1704, the Boston News-Letter made its debut, “Printed by Authority,” and publication continued for 72 more years. It was the first true newspaper published in Boston, and in the colonies. The initial issue bore the date of April 24, 1704.  It was published by John Campbel, postmaster of Boston, and son of Duncan Campbel, the organizer of the Postal System in America.

In 1721, that phrase — with minor changes — was used in an article in one of their newspapers:

Jack of all trades and it would seem, good at none.

The phrase came from England, however.  The phrase appeared in Geffray Mynshul’s book Essays and Characters of a Prison written in 1612 and published in 1618:

Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.

 However, with one more jump we learn that in 14th Century Medieval England, where Jack was any common fellow and so a jack of all trades was a common fellow who could do many different jobs.

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Red-Handed

Posted by Admin on July 27, 2010

This expression means an individual has been caught in the act of committing a crime. Its original meaning is to be caught after having stabbed someone, where the perpetrator still has blood on his or her hands.

“Red-handed” dates back to the Scottish Acts of Parliament of James I in 1432 and is referred to at that time as “red-hand.”   “Red-hand” appears in print many times in Scottish legal proceedings from that point on. 

Sir George Mackenzie’s essay entitled A Discourse Upon The Laws and Customs of Scotland in Matters Criminal which was published in 1674 states:

If he be not taken red-hand, the sheriff cannot proceed against him.”

In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe published in 1819, the shift from “red-hand” to “red-handed” was made:

I did but tie one fellow, who was taken redhanded and in the fact, to the horns of a wild stag.”

You may want to remember this word the next time you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

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